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Aquilon: state-of-the-art connectivity for warships

July 2024. It’s early morning in Toulon harbour, on France’s Mediterranean coast, but there’s already an unusual sense of excitement in the air. The Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is about to deploy on a peacekeeping mission for several months in the Middle East.

As usual, it will be escorted by other French Navy vessels, including a nuclear submarine and the new FDI defence and intervention frigate. Soon they'll be joined by Greek, British and German air defence and anti-submarine warfare frigates as well as a Canadian replenishment tanker.

Ten vessels from five nations with thousands of crew aboard — it’s nothing short of an armada setting off into the Mediterranean. And to perform its mission, this fleet must be able to exchange information constantly, seamlessly and securely. To meet this challenge, officers and crew can count on a decisive asset: the Aquilon communication system from Thales.

A complete set of hardware and software modules

Aquilon ensures the highest levels of connectivity performance for the vessels. The system meets the communication requirements of the command chain at all levels:

Over the long distances involved, the Charles de Gaulle can receive orders from Paris and communicate with chiefs of staff, coordinate with the Toulon naval base to perform an operation or request permission from the Italian authorities for its Rafales to fly in their national airspace.

Aquilon enables vessels within a fleet to maintain permanent contact with each other as well as with allied fleets, led by a US Navy carrier, for example, making coordination easier.

The system allows quick and easy management of crew and duties on a ship.

It’s also anchored in the daily life of crew-members and meets their evolving connectivity needs. Personnel can use it for work but also to communicate with each other and their families, if the operational situation allows.

Aquilon is a complete solution made up of building blocks for specific use cases. These include hardware, which is easy to integrate and support, and software components, which are easy to use, interoperable, readily scalable and protected against cyberattacks.

With its modular architecture, Aquilon is a new-build or retrofit solution for any type of platform, from submarines to carriers, frigates, corvettes and tankers, and all types of fleets, from the world’s largest navies to smaller maritime forces.

Best-in-class performance

Thales is one of the only companies to provide such an extensive range of equipment with a high-data-rate transmit and receive capability across the entire frequency spectrum for fleet-wide communications (UHF radios), long-range communications (HF radios) and satellite communications.

Our engineers have developed the first high-data-rate HF cognitive radio, which is one of the key building blocks of Aquilon. It was a challenge that required not only technical expertise, but also a lot of imagination and creativity.

Since available bandwidth must be shared between civilian and military users, in accordance with international standards, previous-generation HF radios were just too slow to meet these requirements. 

To comply with authorised frequency allocations, Thales engineers developed the HF-XL high-data-rate multicarrier link, which uses up to 16 frequencies simultaneously, significantly increasing data communication capacity.

This wideband HF capability changes everything. The new technology is more resistant to jamming and clutter, provides Internet access and lets users send and receive pictures thanks to the higher connection speeds. And if one frequency is attacked, 15 more are still available. So it's an excellent alternative to satcom in the event of saturation, atmospheric disturbances or cyberattack.

More broadly, as warships become increasingly connected, Thales has worked closely with the main types of users to develop a communication system more closely aligned with operational needs. And our teams will adopt the same approach to the next versions of the system, which will take account of advancing technologies and evolving real-world requirements to offer the most threat-resistant and technically and operationally advanced system of its kind.

The global market leader

Aquilon has been selected by 40 navies worldwide, including the naval forces of Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom. The British Royal Navy has chosen Aquilon for its Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales carriers, its Type 45 and Type 23 frigates and, more recently, its new Type 31e frigates. Aquilon is the communication system on the FDI defence and intervention frigate, known as the ‘digital frigate’, which will be delivered to the French Navy in 2023.

A human-centric system

The carrier group has crossed the Mediterranean without incident. On each ship, the crew’s ability to perform their duties depends in no small part on good communications, with systems that are secure, redundant and quick and easy to deploy.

Enter another key building block of the Aquilon system is COMTICS. It allows naval personnel to communicate on board from fixed terminals, but also on the move using smartphones or tablets. The Thales engineers devised this solution to adapt to the communication habits of new generations of crew-members used to permanent connectivity, with fast connection speeds, built-in mobility and priority given to data and messaging rather than voice.

The PARTNER-C software — another pillar of the system — has also been installed on the carrier and the other vessels in the group. PARTNER-C is the central nervous system of a ship’s communications capability. It manages all shipboard equipment and devices, configures them automatically and identifies any technical issues. To develop this centralised management system, the Thales engineers spent many hours talking to the personnel who operate the French Navy’s communication systems to gain a closer insight into their requirements and provide an effective response before testing with other navies.

With the Middle Eastern coastline in sight, access to communication systems is now more restricted for the crews. The Charles de Gaulle has been refuelled by the replenishment tanker. Two Rafale jets launch from the deck on a mission to gather intelligence behind enemy lines.

Despite the apparent calm across the fleet, its communication systems are working overtime, analysing even the weakest signal. A few hours later, the two fighters return from a successful mission — a success that owes much to the dedication and professionalism of the personnel involved, but also to the quality of the tools at their disposal.

As the reconnaissance and surveillance systems on the various vessels offer even higher levels of performance, they can operate at greater distances from each other and cover much wider areas. With this ever-growing demand for communications and connectivity, the Aquilon solution provides forces with the support they need and is constantly adapting to their requirements.